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Why does NASA continue to follow an old paradigm?

As NASA discards reusable engines, Blue Origin and SpaceX push new frontiers
[Via Ars Technica]

On the Monday before Thanksgiving NASA made what it deemed a momentous announcement: the space agency had awarded $1.16 billion to Aerojet Rocketdyne for rocket engines that would power its “Journey to Mars.” By contrast, a few hours earlier, the private space company Blue Origin secretly launched a rocket into space and safely landed it. The contrast between the deal struck in corridors of Washington D.C. and what had happened in the desert of West Texas could not have been more stark.

The engines that will power NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, were first developed in 1970. These RS-25 engines that gave the space shuttle its thrust were engineering marvels; with some refurbishment NASA could use them over and over again. But now NASA is funding a contract to restart production of those old engines because they would no longer be reused. Like the rest of the massive SLS rocket, its engines will be used once and then burn up in the atmosphere.

In contrast to the billions of dollars NASA spends on legacy hardware, Blue Origin has received about $25 million from the agency during its 15-year existence. That’s less than the cost of a single RS-25 engine. With the launch of its New Shepard vehicle, Blue Origin has gone not only for reusable engines but a reusable booster and a reusable spacecraft. Why? Because this approach is much, much cheaper than throwing flight-quality hardware away after every launch.

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NSAS is following an old paradigm because that is what politicians wantas this makes sure all the companies living off of government contracts keep getting fed.

Wonder what the minds at NASA come up with if they had a plan unfettered by the politics of Congress? Maybe something that could work independently of SLS if things change?

Maybe something like the Asteroid Redirect Mission? Maybe cis-lunar habitats for telerobotic exploration of the Moon?

All the technologies they will need to get to Mars will be developed here. But read between the lines and you see how NASA could accomplish all this without SLS, if needs arise.

They want to test robotics and new propulsion methods to move an asteroid into lunar orbit. At the moment, this asteroid will be explored by using the SLS to launch an Orion capsule to the Moon.

This has been somewhat controversial. Why do we need humans there to look at the asteroid?

But things change a lot if there is an orbiting habitat around the moon, one where humans can spend weeks gaining not only a greater understanding of the asteroids but a much deeper knowledge of what living or traveling in deep space will be like.

As NASA put it:

The deep space environment around the moon is different than low-Earth orbit, but very similar to what an Orion spacecraft would experience on the trip to and from Mars. For instance, solar and cosmic radiation is more prevalent.

Transit times to and from Earth are greater as well, and would vary from nine to 11 days for crew and 10-100 days for cargo, with our existing technology. This makes cis-lunar space ideal to test capabilities needed for the longer duration missions to Mars or its moons—the Mars system—where there are fewer ties with Earth.

Just as the ISS has told us so much about LEO, a cis-lunar habitat would do something similar for Mars.

And guess what? NASA is doing just that.

Having humans living in a habitat in lunar orbit for up to a year will be the proving grounds for a mission to Mars.

And getting the infrastructure up there can be done by an SLS or, and more likely every day, constructing what is needed in LEO before moving it to lunar orbit.

If Space-X or others succeed, it will be much cheaper to lift material, including humans to a LEO platform. Then use tugs to send on the infrastructure to the moon.

NASA seems to actually have a path forward without having to have SLS, if the efforts of commercial approaches succeed.

Image: NASA